Thursday, September 20, 2007

"Thinking Shakespeare"

Acting is strange. When you do it wrong, you're boring and phony; when you do it right, you're exciting and real. Being "real" means convincing the audience that you're engaging in purposeful thought -- that you seem to be actively trying to figure things out, right there on stage, in real time. If the audience feels that -- since you're read the script and toiled through countless rehearsals -- you already know what's going to happen, you'll seem contrived. If you're Hamlet, you can't know whether to be or not to be; you have to figure it out as you speak. Also, you must seem to be carrying on real conversation: really listening and responding -- even though, having memorized the lines, you know what everyone is going to say.

You screw this up by overcomplicating. You worry about what to do with your hands rather than what your character is trying to achieve. Or you worry about trying to squeeze out tears, because you're sure the audience will think you're a good actor if you can cry on cue. You're enmeshed in your ego, rather than simply trying to achieve some simple action, like talking or listening.

You screw things up by failing to prepare. You don't learn your lines well enough, so they never seem natural. Sometimes this is due to laziness. Other times, it's ego again. You're scared that you'll fail on stage, and every time you pick up your script for a memorization session, you have to think about your impending failure. That's too painful, so you watch television instead. And in the end, you fail, because you didn't pick up your script.

You succeed because you Keep It Simple, Stupid. You memorize your lines, and you play your simple actions. Then you bow and go home. Really, that's all there is to it. You figure out What Your Character Wants and you try to get it, using the playwrights words (which you've thoroughly memorized). But just sticking to this simple plan is incredibly hard. Actors need constant help to do so. Some need to be prodded to memorize their lines; others need to be kicked in the ass and told to get over themselves, their fears, their inhibitions, etc. What does your character want? What should he do to get what he wants. Do that! ONLY do that.

Even those who are committed to the simple plan need continual reminders to stick to it. It's so easy to veer off course. Which is why it's always useful to read clear, to-the-point acting books. They're all the same. They all tell you to figure out what your character wants and then work to get it. But the good ones find a new way of telling you this. Even when you know these books messages before reading them, you read them and say, "Yes! Of course. That's what I should be doing!" And you're grateful to the author for setting you back on The One True Path.

The best acting book I've read in years is "Thinking Shakespeare", by Barry Edelstein. It delves into every nook and cranny of Shakespearean acting. And we Shakespeareans need even more prodding than usual, because added to our egos and our laziness, we have reverence to contend with. Shakespeare is such a lofty figure! How can we possibly measure up? By Keeping It Simple, Stupid. By figuring out what our characters want and working to achieve those goals on stage. That's Edelstein's message. It's been many other people's message, too. But Edelstein tells it well -- and he shapes it specifically to the needs of the Shakespearean actor. But "Thinking Shakespeare" should be read by all actors. For if you can act Shakespeare, you can surely act Neil Simon. The Simonean uses many of the same tools as the Shakespearean, and Edelstein will teach both how to wield those tools. (It's the "figuring out what your character wants" part that particularly hard with Shakespeare. But if you know how to look for them, you'll find clues in the words. Most of Edelstein's book explains how to interpret the words to find these clues.)

"Thinking Shakespeare" is a splendid book for directors, too. It will teach them -- or remind them -- how to analyze a Shakespeare script. It will also help them work with actors. And "Thinking Shakespeare" will thrill the literary scholar or Shakespeare fan. If you've spent all your time viewing Shakespeare through the lens of academia, this book will open you up to a whole new way of reading (not just Shakespeare, but all plays). You'll see plays as conflicts that arise when multiple agents -- the different characters -- all try to achieve their ends at once, inevitably clashing with each other to do so. And you'll see how each character uses facets of Shakespeare's language to achieve his particular ends. Since I started running Shakespeare through the mechanics of the theatre, I've enjoyed reading the plays more than ever. You will too.

Throughout the book, Edelstein repeated asks the correct question (the only question): why is this character using these words now? He answers that question in dozens of ways, including metrical analysis, focusing on verbs, chewing over line endings, etc. But none of this is done for the sake of scholarship; it's done to answer the question "why is this character using these words now?" (So that actors can choose an appropriate action when speaking the words.) For instance, Edelstein urges readers to consider Richard II's change from heightened to simple language in his "Let's talk of graves, of worms, or epitaphs" speech. Near the start, Richard's words are lofty and "poetic," such as when he says to, "Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes / Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth." But by the end of the speech, his words are simple monosyllables ("I live with bread, like you; feel want, / Taste grief, need friends..."). Why? Why the change from high to low? What does this tell us about what Richard wants? What does it tell us about why he's using these words now? Actors need to understand what such changes mean and know how to use them as tools to aid their craft.

Using simple, non-jargony prose, Edelstein delves into meter, line endings, formal vs. informal address, shared lines, names, rhyme, irony, wit, and more. He's exhaustive and definitive. I dare you to come up with ten topics (applicable to the Shakespearean actor) that Edelstein has forgotten to cover. He's written THE book that every actor and director should skim through (having once read thoroughly) before starting work on a play.

I do have a few quibbles: in his early section on actions, Edelstein suggests that a strong one is "to wonder" (as in "to wonder about a question or problem"). I disagree. An action helps an actor DO something -- as opposed to trying to play some emotional state. For instance, an actor should never try to "be sexy." Instead, he should try "to seduce." To seduce is a playable action. So is "to rebuke," "to compliment," "to mock," etc. These are all things you can try to DO while speaking the playwrights lines. The action that you're playing will necessarily color the way you speak the lines. If I'm saying "you're SO beautiful," I'm going to say it very differently if my action is "to mock" as opposed to "to flatter."

"To wonder," Edelstein's example of a good action, seems more like a state to me. Granted, it's not quite the same as "happy," "sexy" or "pissed off." It makes no sense to say "to happy," whereas "to wonder" is a perfectly fine infinitive. But to me, it's not playable. What exactly do you DO when you wonder? If I'm trying "to seduce," there are various tactics I can employ. I can gaze into your eyes; I can subtly lick my lips; I can speak softly; etc. But what tactics do I employ "to wonder"? Wondering isn't something I do on purpose; it's something that HAPPENS to me when I get curious or confused. (When a scientist is curious, he doesn't take action by wondering; he studies, researches, experiments... When he's lying alone at night, he may wonder, but that doesn't make wondering a playable action. When Hamlet asks "To be or not to be?" he doesn't wonder, he wrestles, searches, beats his head against a problem....) As a director, I'd never tell an actor "to wonder." I'd worry that, by doing so, I'd throw him into trying to play a state -- to BE something (quizzical?) rather than to DO something.

My second quibble is something of a soapbox issue for me: I'm continually turned off, when I see productions of Shakespeare plays, by actors who illustrate their speeches with hand gestures. For instance, when saying "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below," the actor playing Hamlet might flap his arms like a bird's wings while saying "fly up" and point to the ground while saying "below." I suspect actors do this -- and I see them do it ALL the time -- for a couple of reasons; (a) they think it's amusing; and (b) they think it will help the audience understand the difficult, Shakespearean language.

I object to it because it's (a) redundant and (b) condescending. I can understand "fly up" without gestures, thank you very much. And so can my audience. When I direct Shakespeare plays, I forbid all such gestures. I DO worry that the language might be hard for the audience, but I deal with that by making sure the actors know what they're saying, know why they're saying it, say it clearly, and say it while playing an action. Whenever I stick to this plan, the audience always seems to be able to follow the play -- with no need for pantomimed gestures.

But I mostly hate these gestures because they're phony. I don't believe that the characters would really make them if they were truly 100% focused on trying to achieve their actions. I believe they make them because they're 80% focused on their actions and 20% focussed on trying to amuse (or explain things to) the audience. Since I'm aware of this, I smell fakery. I'm not saying that people never gesture in real life. Of course they do. But they don't tend to gesture in such a self-conscious, theatrical way.

I mostly see these gestures when an actor says something lewd. For instance, when Mercutio says, "love is like a great natural, that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole," you can bet that the actor will thrust his hips back and forth to MAKE SURE THAT WE GET IT. Maybe we don't get it (though I think we do, if the actor speaks the line clearly while playing a strong action), but I'd rather miss the sense of a line or two than be constantly distracted by visual Cliff Notes.

I often fear that actors (and directors) are terrified that without these gestures (and without juggling, musical numbers, wacky costumes, etc.), audiences will be bored. Too much Shakespeare! The audience needs a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down! But if you assume that Shakespeare is Caster Oil -- or if you assume your audience thinks it is -- you've lost the battle. Produce Shakespeare because you love Shakespeare, and assume your audience loves it too. Of course, some don't love it, and that's too bad. But you're not going to convert them into Bardoholics by making lewd gestures. You may -- you probably will -- entertain them. They'll go home thinking, "Boy, that actor was funny when he mimed jacking off!" But they won't go home loving "Romeo and Juliet."

I'll be off my soapbox in a minute. But I'm standing on it now, because Edelstein (correctly) points out that if a line seems dirty in Shakespeare, it probably is. In other words, Shakespeare intended it to be dirty, and his original audience would have understood it as dirty. Edelstein does NOT suggest making lewd gestures to illustrate with lewd lines, but he does immediately follow his discussion about dirty lines with a chapter on gesture and movement. So while he may not connect the dots, his readers might. They might feel that an expert on "Thinking Shakespeare" has given them permission to illustrate "the beast with two backs." Maybe he has. Maybe Edelstein likes such gestures. As a Shakespearean director and theatre-goer, I'm sure he's seen them often enough. But while he rails against other practices that make Shakespeare seem phony -- Shatner-like inflection and veddy veddy pretentious, British-sounding dialects -- he doesn't speak out against the sort of gestures that I wish had been left behind in the 18th Century, where they belong. Well, maybe Edelstein's not on this soapbox with me.

Finally, I fault the book for the very reason it will surely appeal to many others: though Edelstein claims to be writing for all sorts of people -- laymen and experienced thespians alike -- his target audience is one that quakes in its boots when faced with "King Lear" or "MacBeth." So his prose is very Shakespeare-for-Dummies-esque. "Don't worry. The Shakespeare Police won't arrest you." That sort of thing. I'm sure this hand-holding aids many people, and it probably helps book sales, but it's a bit grating if you're not scared of Shakespeare. It's a bit superfluous if you want "Just the facts, ma'am."

Still, these are minor concerns based on personal quirks. "Thinking Shakespeare" is a fantastic resource. The next time an actor friend has a birthday, I know exactly what I'm going to get him. The next time I direct a Shakespeare play, I'm buying copies for everyone in the cast.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

my dad

What made me who I am? I'm a theatre director, a computer programmer, and a technical writer. My father, Harry Geduld, is none of those things. Yet, as I look back, I realize that he's responsible for nearly every career choice I've made and many of the (hopefully endearing) quirks of my personality.

My dad is a Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature, West European Studies and Film Studies. He retired a few years ago as chair of his department. But while he was running his department, he surprised many colleagues by "ruling" with an olive branch instead of a whip. Those of you who come from academic backgrounds know how political they are: how axes are always grinding and grudges last for decades. Over the years, my dad had accumulated plenty of good reasons to be vindictive. As a younger professor, he was often ill-treated. I don't know all the ins and outs of the situation, but I think it boiled down to the fact that he taught Film Studies. Nowadays, that has more cache, but in the 60s and 70s, scholars sniffed at it.

Student's didn't. Student's ate it up. My dad's classes burst at the seams, while those other professors -- the ones teaching German Literature classes (or whatever) -- were lucky to get three students. So snobbery combined with professional jealousy. Added to this, my dad was a writing machine. He churned out books -- over twenty-five when I last counted. He wrote papers and essays and reviews. His department supposedly had a "publish or perish" rule, but I think my dad was one of the few who took it seriously. So he was a little like "the teacher's pet," following the rules while the other boys stood around on street corners, whistling at girls. Only there wasn't a teacher to pet him. He just believed in hard work and took joy in work well done.

I'm sure many facts in the previous paragraphs are wrong. I was a kid when it happened and it was all very confusing. But I was left with the impression that my dad was working incredibly hard, taking a stand against the world. It really seemed like him against everyone, but he didn't back down. He just kept working hard and fighting the good fight, and after years and years, he finally got the recognition he deserved. And, when he finally got some power and could have rained sorrow down on the heads of those who had belittled him, he instead treated everyone with kindness. That was a wonderful lesson for a child. Though I was brought up in a Jewish home, I learned from my dad to "love thine enemy" and "turn the other cheek."

Since he was a Film Historian, our house was always flickering with movies. Back before DVDs or VCRs, my dad would project movies onto our living-room wall. This is how I first saw "Vertigo," "City Lights," "Gone With The Wind," "2001," and "Sunset Boulevard." Later, my dad bought one of the first consumer video-tape recorders. It was a reel-to-reel machine! Each reel could hold an hour of footage. And I remember when a good movie came on TV, I would try to tape it. Halfway through, I would frantically thread a second tape through the machine, hoping to miss as little of the movie as possible. I got to the point where I could do this in about 30 seconds.

All these movies now float around in my head. I fell in love with stories -- the type people used to tell in old movies, when a good yarn was what was most important. From as early as I can remember, I was awash in stories. Which, I'm sure, is what made we want to work in the theatre. As a director, I'm not interested in making a point or advancing a theme. I just want to tell stories.

Actually, there was another influence on me as a story maker. When I talk to people about what made me decide to become a director, I always bring up the movies on the wall. But there was an earlier influence, and it also came from my dad: he read to me. From when I was too young to remember to when I was eight or nine, my dad read me stories. I'm sure, when I was really small, he must have read me picture books, but what I remember are the novels. He would read me a chapter every night, making all sorts of voices and playing all the characters (the start of my romance with acting?). This is how I first encountered "The Time Machine," "War of the Worlds," The Narnia Books and "The Hobbit." I became a life-long reader, and in addition to printed stories, I also listen to audiobooks. I think they make me nostalgic for those days when my dad read to me.

One time I had to go on a long road trip, and my dad actually recorded himself reading the whole of John Hersey's "Hiroshima" on four or five cassettes. It was harrowing. I'll always remember it, but I've never wanted to reread it. I want it in my head, spoken with my dad's voice.

In addition to Film Studies, my dad also taught English Literature. He is an extremely well-read, cultured man. So he may have been disappointed when his son became more interested in comic books and sci-fi than in Shakespeare and Melville. But if he was disappointed, he never showed it. He never forced Chaucer down my gullet or made me feel ashamed of my lowbrow tastes. Quite the contrary, he BOUGHT me comic books and recommended sci-fi books to me. Eventually, in my own time, I got tired of the "kiddie lit" and graduated to the classics that were stacked on shelves throughout the house. So my dad did the best kind of teaching with me. He let me be my own sort of person but gave me the tools to "better" myself -- when I was ready to do so.

Seemingly without trying, my dad taught me to be a good writer. He tapped away at his manual typewriter (using his two-fingered, hunt-and-peck method, he was faster than any touch-typist I've ever seen), churning out books at the rate of a dime-store novelist. But he wasn't a hack. He was devoted to clear, evocative prose. He introduced me to writers like Orwell and showed me how they structured their sentences around strong, simple verbs. More important, he taught me that all writing was worth doing well. I write much less creative stuff than him. He wrote studies of D.W. Griffith and Chaplin; I write computer manuals. But I labor over each sentence like a poet, and my readers seem to appreciate the effort.

One day, as a teenager, I came home upset about some fight I'd gotten into at school. My dad told me that if I really wanted to win arguments, I should study logic. And he presented me with a dog-eared copy of some logic book he'd had for years. It was a tiny, Strunk-and-White-sized book, but it started an avalanche in my brain that's still rumbling around in there today. I took to logic immediately. I loved how it clarified my thinking and writing, but I wanted to touch it in some purer form. I eventually found that form via computer programming. I think I became a programmer for two reasons: because I wanted to grapple with logic in some tangible form, and because I was transfixed by HAL 9000 when, as a boy, my dad showed "2001" on our living-room wall.

Before becoming a programmer, I spent ten years teaching computer courses. I was a great teacher. If there was a five-star rating system on evaluations, I pretty much always got five-out-of-five stars. I have a legion of former students who keep in touch with me and ask advice. I'm continually invited to speak at national conventions. I owe it all to my dad. Some professors are good writers or researchers but lousy teachers. Not my dad. He worked just as hard at teaching as he did at writing, and he always spoke to his students as equals. When I was a kid, our house was generally filled with grad students, who seemed like friends. Though, as a kid, my schoolteachers were mostly incompetent martinets, I learned from my dad that teaching wasn't about being in charge. It wasn't about discipline or proving how smart you are. It was about communicating complex ideas clear and helping people grow.

My dad filled our house with music. He's been collecting L.P.s since he was a teenager. By the time I came along, he'd acquired shelves and shelves of them. From my friends, I learned about The Beatles and Disco. From my dad, I learned about Shostokovich, Judy Garland, Old British Music Hall ongs, Miklos Rozsa and Stephen Sondheim. These all still play on my stereo today. But more than for the specific music, I thank my dad for making music as essential to me as food or water. I have over five hundred albums on my iPod. I wish I had room for more. When I get done writing this, I'm going to play Shostokovich's Eighth String Quartet. And then maybe the original cast album of "Company."

One thing I didn't appreciate about my dad until I was much older: he was a good husband. As a kid, I witnessed all of my friend's parents separating, divorcing and remarrying. Most of those friends are now divorced themselves. But my dad and mom have been together for almost fifty years. I can't yet claim such success. I've only been married to my wife for eleven years. But things are going well and marriage to me feels like something sacred and worthwhile. And I owe that to the example I witnessed as a child.

In many ways, I'm very different from my dad. I'm not sure what he believes, but I don't think he's a staunch atheist like me. He's a proud Jew, whereas my Jewishness has never been all that important to me. He also an extremely political man. I, on the other hand, rarely think about politics. I suspect sometimes my lack of interest in my roots -- and my head-in-the-sand attitude about politics -- upsets him. I don't blame him for this. I'm a little ashamed of these aspects of myself, too.

I know he's the way he is because, as a child, life treated him harshly. He was a small boy in London during The Blitz, and twice his homes were bombed to smithereens. He was evacuated into the country, separated from his mother and father and subjected to all sorts of anti-semitism. I can't even imagine. I can't because he worked hard to make my life different, better. And it was -- and is. And since he sheltered me from many of his hardships, I can't completely relate to what he wend through. In addition to all the intellectual and emotional gifts he gave me, he gave me the gift of security.

How can I thank him? There are no words.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

boo hoo

An actress friend is concerned because she can't make herself cry. Here's my take on stage crying:

1) Very few people can turn on the waterworks at will. This is just a truth, and all actors need to admit it to themselves. In play X, if asked to shed tears, an actor may not be able to do it. He needs to admit that he may not be able to do it and come up with some other plan. (This actor is probably a really really good actor. Sometimes good actors can't shed tear; sometimes bad actors can shed tears. Shedding tears is an auxiliary ability, like stage combat. It doesn't define good acting.)

2) "Some other plan" is faking it. If shedding tears isn't an option and the play calls for crying, you need to fake-cry. There's NO shame to doing this. Acting ISN'T about feeling real feelings; it's about convincing the audience that you're feeling real feelings. All that method stuff -- the stuff that helps you feel real feelings on stage -- is useful, because the easiest way to convince someone that you're having real feelings it to actually have real feelings. But it's important to remember that "having real feelings" is not the goal-- it's one tool to help you reach the goal. And when that tool fails, you should toss it and choose another.

An actors might refuse to fake-cry because...

1) He thinks the goal of acting is to feel real feelings. But he's wrong. The goal is TO TELL A STORY -- to convince the audience that he is feeling real feelings.

2) He doesn't enjoy acting unless he is feeling real feelings. I sympathize, but he's being selfish. Acting isn't about the actor serving his own needs; it's about the actor serving the play. The play doesn't care whether or not the actor really feels anything. If the play cares about anything, it cares about getting its story gets told.

3) He's scared that if he fake-cries, he'll do it badly and it will be obvious that he's faking. Okay, so get better at it! Rent movies of with people crying in them and study their faces. Study their body movements, etc. This sounds silly, but I strongly believe that ALL acting schools should have a class called "Faking It." In that class, students should learn how to fake crying, laughter, orgasm, etc. All actors should feel secure that if they can't muster up the real thing, they can effectively fake it. They should never feel that they can neither really do it nor fake it. If they feel that, they'll panic. (And I bet an actor who is really secure with his fake-cry will actually be able to shed real tears more often than an insecure actor. One of many factors that keeps the insecure actor from crying is fear of failure. It's like trying to get an erection when you're worried about premature ejaculation.)

What about tears? Well, there are all sorts of tricks you can play -- and they're EFFECTIVE. One is to play the action of holding-back-tears. (When real tears roll down an actors cheeks, it's impressive in a pyrotechnic sort of way, but it doesn't actually serve most scenes. It's too much of a release: too cathartic. It kills all the tension. Holding back is usually better. For a rare counter-example, see Emma Thompson in "Sense and Sensibility." And think about how rare such scenes are.) Wiping away non-existent tears works really well too. Don't wipe them from your cheeks -- wipe them from you eyes. The audience can tell there are no actual tears on your cheeks (in a close space), but they can't tell that there are no actual tears in your eyes.

(When I was playing Uncle Vanya, I came up with a great trick (it helped that I was directing): I told the actress playing Sonya to come up to me and wipe away my (fake) tears. This is what magicians call "misdirection.")

Fake it. Sell it. And have fun selling it. When they praise you on your realism, inwardly smirk and think, "SUCKERS!" They're not really suckers; they're theatregoers. Theatregoers WANT to believe. They are paying to be conned. Con them, goddammit!

As for the movies: bah! Hardly anyone really cries in movies. It's either glycerin or tears that finally come after a zillion takes -- and you're only seeing take One Zillion. If you want to ruin a bunch of movies for yourself, watch scenes in which people cry and notice the inevitable cut right BEFORE the appearance of tears. BAD GUY: You must pay the rent. SWEET POLLY: But.. but.. *sniff*... [Cut back to BAD GUY] BAD GUY: Boo ha ha ha ha HAAAA! [Cut back to POLLY with tears running down her cheeks.]

It's editing and special effects.

Some screen actors who CAN cry on cue opt for glycerin instead -- because it looks better than real tears.